Thinking biblically about race
written by: Timothy Brindle
published by: Westminster Magazine
We are all too familiar with the phenomenon of placing people into racial categories. News stations and social media never stop categorizing people according to different races. We may not think twice when asked to indicate our “race” on a job or college application, with the options “WHITE,” “BLACK,” “ASIAN,” etc.
Such racialization of image bearers has been divisive and used for power. Are these racial distinctions biblical? Does the living God categorize the creatures whom He has created in His image according to racial categories, based on the various amounts of melanin in their skin?
As Christians, we must “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) when it comes to the notion of race. Let us now consider from Scripture the one created human race, the one fallen human race, and Christ’s one new humanity.
One Created Human Race
In his defense of the gospel in Acts 17, Paul says several things about what human beings are. As those who are “very religious,” we are created as worshipers to “seek God” (v. 22, 27). The Lord of heaven and earth made “from out of one man” every nation of humanity (v. 26). The Creator placed into Adam and Eve’s DNA the possibility of every physical trait, such as the variety of skin, hair, and eye color. Every human has various amounts of melanin, making each of us a “person of color.”
Besides coming “from one man,” we are more importantly from God as His created descendants: “In Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His descendants.’ Therefore, since we are the descendants of God...” (Acts 17:28-29; NASB).
The word in the phrase “descendants of God,” translated “offspring” in the ESV, is different than the usual word found for “offspring” (cf. Gal. 3:16). It can be translated “people,” or even “race” (cf. Acts 7:19; 1 Pet. 2:9). Thus, humanity, in his ontology (that is, in our being), is a single race derived from God. We are God’s one created race.
"Humanity, in his ontology (that is, in our being), is a single race derived from God. We are God’s one created race."
Genesis 1 records that God created different “kinds” and species of plants (v.11–12) and animals (v. 21, 24–25). But God did not create different “species” of humans! The only distinction is male and female (v. 27). What kind of creatures are humans, then? We are God-like: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Gen. 1:26–28). The image of God, therefore, must be our anthropological starting place.
Historically, Darwinian Evolutionists have categorized people based on different species of humans. Since Darwin believed that all humans descended from apes, he taught that certain “races” have further evolved than others from ape likeness. The place where race theorists often start, is putting people in categories of “oppressed” or “oppressor.” Even Reformed Christians can sometimes mistakenly begin their anthropology with the biblical doctrine of total depravity. But first, we must establish that all humanity was created equally dignified in the image of the triune God.
"Even Reformed Christians can sometimes mistakenly begin their anthropology with the biblical doctrine of total depravity. But first, we must establish that all humanity was created equally dignified in the image of the triune God."
One Fallen Human Race
Adam’s plunge into sin on behalf of humanity brought about a singular fallen human race. Adam’s name in Hebrew is also used for “mankind”—the collective Adamic race: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man [Hebrew: Adam] was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Apart from God’s saving intervention, each of us is born condemned and enslaved to sin “in Adam.” Since Adam represented the entire human race, my biggest problem, as a human, is not “white guilt” but the imputation of Adamic guilt (Rom. 5:12).
The oneness of fallen humanity is especially seen at the tower of Babel, where the sons of Adam are united to build an idolatrous temple-city: “And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have one language.” (Gen. 11:5–6)
The word for the singular human “people” in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) of Genesis 11:6 is the word translated “race” by the ESV in 1 Peter 2:9. Notice also that the oneness of humanity is linked to the one language which they spoke.
Instead of leaving the one fallen human race in their united self-destructive idolatry of making a name (Hebrew: shem) for themselves (Gen. 11:4), the LORD in His severe mercy disperses them across the earth, because eventually He will be the one to regather them through the line of Shem (v. 10).
At Babel, God scatters and disperses humanity into what? Although placed before Genesis 11, Genesis 10 assumes Babel (see 10:10). Thus Genesis 10 fleshes out the dispersing of the descendants of Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, that occurred in Genesis 11.
Let’s zoom in on the various words used for the God-ordained differences in humanity, bolded below:
The sons of Japheth: . . .From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations. (Gen. 10:2, 5)
These are the sons of Ham, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations. (Gen. 10:20)
These are the sons of Shem, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations. (Gen. 10:31)
A “clan” is an extended familial group with a close blood relationship, often a sub-unit of “a tribe” or “a people” (see Joshua 13:24). A “nation” is a people group made up of multiple clans, referring to a whole population of a territory, often united under a single ruler. The Greek translation of “nation” contains the English root for ethnicity. In other contexts, it refers to non-Israelites (i.e., Gentiles, heathens, sinful peoples). A “language” is literally a “tongue,” referring to specific dialects spoken by each nation, while “land” is the regional boundary where each nation dwells.
It should strike us that skin color is not mentioned as a distinguishing feature of the various people groups. In other words, the various amounts of melanin resulting in differing skin complexions are not ethnicities, thus they are not biblical categories for human identity. Just as collective humanity as “one people” was correlated with “one language” in Genesis 11:6, so the various groups of family clans who were dispersed by the LORD at Babel are primarily categorized by language, along with regional boundaries (lands) as unified bodies of tribes consisting of nations.
Given to partiality in our wickedness, the one fallen race of sinners has often hated one another on the basis of God-ordained physiological differences, such as skin pigment. Sinners went from worshiping “whiteness” to despising it, and from despising “blackness” to worshipping it. Recognizing the evils of discrimination, our society is now obsessed with “race,” making skin-color-based racial categories the standard of “diversity.” But according to Genesis 10 language, my Irish grandmother and Polish grandfather had a “mixed” marriage. This means that almost every church in the United States is diverse, consisting of different family clans, who descended from different nations.
"Given to partiality in our wickedness, the one fallen race of sinners has often hated one another on the basis of God-ordained physiological differences, such as skin pigment."
I formerly categorized myself as “white,” ashamed of my skin complexion. Having erased my true ethnic identity as “some white guy,” my African wife helped me to see that the Lord created each of our skin complexions for His glory—they are all equally beautiful and wonderfully made by Him (Ps. 139:14). My unbiblical thinking had robbed me of celebrating the rich ancestry I have as an Irish, Polish, English, Scottish, German American man! I have since realized that “white” does no justice to the richness of my ancestry, just as “black” fails to capture the richness of my wife’s heritage from the Mbundu tribe in Angola, as an Angolan, Botswanan, now American, citizen.
One New Humanity
At Babel, the nations are scattered; through Abraham the nations are gathered. To highlight this, the LORD intentionally uses the same words found in the dispersing of the clans and nations of Noah’s descendants, in His covenant promise to Abraham:
“In you all the clans of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3)
“In your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 22:18)
At times Abraham’s offspring refers to the nation that descended from him, namely, Israel. At the Exodus, Israel went out of Egypt as a “mixed multitude” (Exod. 12:38). What made Israel unique was the fact that they were set apart by the Living God as His covenant people: “I will be Your God, you will be my people.” What primarily defined Israel in the eyes of God, was not their physical features, but His Name upon them and their devotion to the LORD based on His revelation to them and His glorious presence with them (Deut. 14:2).
"What primarily defined Israel in the eyes of God, was not their physical features, but His Name upon them and their devotion to the LORD based on His revelation to them and His glorious presence with them."
The ultimate offspring of Abraham, who would bless all nations with Himself, is Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). The living God became human flesh to become the second Adam and create a new humanity, through faith in His perfect life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection. All who are united to Christ are His “chosen race” (1 Pet. 2:9). Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus shows us that Israel’s Messiah, “son of David, son of Abraham,” also has Gentile ancestry with Canaanite, Moabite, and Hittite blood, which He would shed “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:52).
After His resurrection, Jesus began reversing Babel at Pentecost when people from the various scattered nations were enabled to understand one another’s languages, declaring the mighty works of God. Jesus poured out His Holy Spirit for His new creation kingdom to spread “to the ends of the earth,” saving both the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8) and the Roman Centurion (Acts 10). Now, a descendant of Ham and a descendant of Japheth had come into “the tents of Shem” (Gen. 9:27).
Biblically, there are two kinds of humans: the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother” (1 John 3:10, 12). At the final judgment, Jesus will not distinguish people according to “racial” categories, but according to whether they are His blood-bought sheep, or unbelieving goats (Matt. 25:32–33).
"While we should rejoice in our ethnic differences, our primary identity is found in our union with Christ."
While we should rejoice in our ethnic differences, our primary identity is found in our union with Christ. In Christ, the new man, our God-made distinctions such as gender and ethnicity become secondary, and the world’s man-made divisions are destroyed (Col. 3:9–11). In an age of identity confusion, I can exult in the reality that I am first and foremost “a man in Christ” (2 Cor. 12:2). Therefore, I must no longer view my fellow Christians “according to the flesh”—based on fallen worldly standards—but as God’s “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).
The Scriptures are not only sufficient for the race discussion, but they are necessary; we cannot rightly make sense of who are without them. Since “we have the mind of Christ,” only the believer can rightly understand people (1 Cor. 2:14–16).
In the end, Jesus Christ alone will receive the glory as the gatherer of His one chosen race, consisting of His people from the biblical categories mentioned at Babel:
“These are the sons of Ham, in their tribes, according to their tongues, in their lands and in their nations.” (Gen. 10:20, LXX)
“Behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from all nations and tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9)
Your brother or sister in Christ is a truer kin
Than those not in Christ with the same hue of skin.